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A star was born at the Elysian Hotel this winter, and no one came to the nursery to visit. Ria, a polished new spot masterminded by a chef you’ve never heard of and staffed by servers so young they look as if their moms dropped them off at work, could eventually take its place at the table with Chicago’s restaurant elites. But first people need to know Ria exists. Then they have to accept the whole thing as a work in progress, which is a leap of faith at these prices.
Jason McLeod, the chef at Ria (REE-uh) as well as the more casual Balsan across the hall, freely admits that Ria has not yet removed its training wheels. “Our goal was to build as we go and add some more dishes,” says the Vancouver Island native of his tiny menu. “We did not want to get too adventurous to begin with.” Does that mean McLeod doesn’t consider a wonderful appetizer of soft-poached hen egg with Spanish chorizo, baby leeks, and cockscomb on a bed of finely chopped caramelized onions to be adventurous? You can understand why I’m eager to see where the place goes.
For now, the experience feels less like a restaurant visit and more like a banquet on a private island with your own staff. Dan Pilkey, the charming sommelier, could talk wine all night, and he did when we ordered a frappuccino-toned 2006 Añoro malbec on one visit. Our cheerily efficient waitress told us that the roomy, minimalist environs reflected some kind of “nautical theme.” Though the space was plenty appealing, with its wispy curtains and cushy chairs, if there was anything maritime, I must have missed the boat.
Before appetizers, servers plied us with “a gift from the kitchen” (a lovely, crisp choux pastry filled with Gruyère), an amuse (a foie gras macaron with shaved hazelnuts and a dab of huckleberry syrup), and warm mini baguettes made in-house. So I didn’t much mind that my starter of apple slices with buttery sablé Breton shortbread, “bandaged” Cheddar, and herb salad was a bit, uh, wee. On one visit, fish represented three of the five entrées—ah, the nautical theme—including half a fillet of grilled sturgeon neighbored by three crispy-tender hunks of braised pork belly, glazed baby carrots, and a thick carrot purée. Glorious.
Menus these days go nuts with wordy descriptions, but McLeod’s does the exact opposite. When I ordered the innocuous-sounding “squab, sweetbreads, savoy cabbage, lemon,” I did not realize I would get a stunning work of art I’d be talking about for months rather than just a pigeon and a pancreas. Where another restaurant might obsessively explain every element of your plate, Ria leaves much of the guesswork to diners. “Peking duck for two, grapefruit, baby turnips, foie gras” actually represents a nuanced two-course mini feast for each diner. First you both get a traditional sliced breast, insanely rich with crispy skin in a duck port sauce; then a tartlet harboring decadent leg meat alongside a lobe of pistachio-crusted foie gras in pear purée.
There comes a point in any surprisingly good meal—often just prior to dessert—when you pray to the restaurant gods that you haven’t experienced a fluke. Ria’s final course, courtesy of its pastry chefs, Andrew Johnson and Alissa Wallers, takes things to another level. A gooey spiced hazelnut cake with dried cherries, hazelnuts, two scoops of praline gelato, and a cherry reduction crisp came together in a thrilling way. One bite of the floating island with brandy crème anglaise and I looked around Ria’s empty room, astonished that we were alone. As my eyes stopped on the wall sculpture of 1,700 polyester-resin fish bones—which resembles a flock of birds more than a school of fish—I had one thought: Soon diners will be gathering, too.
Photograph: Anna Knott